The Logarithms, Its Discovery and Development

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Two Pages from John Napier's Logarithmic Table
Napier logtable.jpg
Field: Algebra
Image Created By: John Napier
Website: Milestones in the history of thematic cartography, statistical graphics, and data visualization

Two Pages from John Napier's Logarithmic Table

These are the two pages from John Napier's original Mirifici logarithmorum cannonis descriptio(The Description of the Wonderful Canon of Logarithms) which started with the following

Hic liber est minimus, si spectes verba, sed usum. Sid spectes, Lector, maximus hic liber est. Disce, scies parvo tantum debere libello. Te, quantum magnis mille voluminibus.

which is translated into

The use of this book is quite large, my dear friend. No matter how modest it looks, You study it carefully and find that it gives As much as a thousand big books.

Basic Description

During the initial creation of the page Logarithmic Scale and the Slide Rule, I found a very thin but immensely interesting volume, John Napier and the Invention of Logarithms, 1614 --- A Lecture, by Ernest William Hobson. Fascinated by logarithm's history and its subsequent development into what we know today, I decided to have a separate page dedicated to explaining and imparting this knowledge, not only for my own learning but also for the learning of others. The book was a very concise and succinct volume that presented how John Napier delivered his original ideas. It was absolutely a pleasure to read because it translated Napier's arguments and thoughts into relatively modern mathematical symbols and notations and at the same time preserved and revealed Napier's ingenuity. Much of the ideas here are from the above mentioned book, another wonderful book by Lancelot Hogben, Mathematics for the Million: How to Master the Magic of Numbers and a relatively modern translation of the Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Constructio (The Construction of the Wonderful Canon of Logarithms). In addition, I have supplied some additional proofs and necessary information to aid understanding. Though a thorough understanding of the original publication requires some careful thoughts and deliberate ruminations, in the end, you will find that you will appreciate logarithms a lot more than you did before.

As you can see, the logarithms given in the tables are those of the sines of asgles from 0^\circ to 90^\circ at intervals of one minute, to seven or eight figures. The table is arranged semi-quadrantlly, so that the logarithms of the sine and the cosine of an angle appear on the same line, their difference being given in the table of differentials which thus forms a table of logarithmic tangents. Why? Well \tan \theta = \frac {\sin \theta}{\cos \theta} and taking logarithms of both sides we will have log \tan \theta = log \sin \theta - log \cos \theta. So, the difference forms the logarithmic tangents. Therefore, it is safe to assume that he invented logarithms to aid calculation in astronomy and geometry (in Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio, he gave the application of logarithms in solution of plane and spherical triangles).

A More Mathematical Explanation

Note: understanding of this explanation requires: *A little Algebra

An Interesting Introduction: Why is John Napier's Discovery so Extraordinary

Today, we regard ta [...]

An Interesting Introduction: Why is John Napier's Discovery so Extraordinary

Today, we regard taking logarithms as nothing but the inverse of calculating exponential. i.e. obtaining x=log_ab knowing a^x=b. It seems that taking logarithms is as natural as operations involving indices. Just punch the calculator and we can have the answer. What if we don't have a calculator? How would you calculate log_57? Apparently, the definition of logarithms is a lot easier than it real calculation. Taking the argument further, what if you are neither aware of the notion of index as we now accept as a basic algebraic operation nor the exponential notation? Not only that, what if the decimal notation was not even in use? How would you even come up with the definition and a table of logarithms. Well, it is impossible you would say because what we take to be facts and the basics were even available. It is like trying to calculus before we even know how to add and subtract. Well those were the narrowness of the means available to John Napier who predated Isaac Newton and Leibniz so calculus and subsequently calculation by means of infinite series were not available him as well. While these obstacles in mathematics were daunting enough, those in society were even greater. The period from 16th to early 17th century was full of transformation and turmoil in religion and politics of the British Islands. In spite of all those difficulties, Napier had accomplished what few even in better condition could not have accomplished.

Seeing there is nothing that is so troublesome to mathematical practice, nor that doth more molest and hinder calculators, than the multiplications, divisions, square and cubical extractions of great numbers ... I began therefore to consider in my mind by what certain and ready art I might remove those hindrances. Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio

Napier published the Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio (The Description of the Wonderful Canon of Logarithms) in 1614 which did not contain an account of the methods by which the "wonderful canon" was constructed. It was not until after his death, Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Constructio (The Construction of the Wonderful Canon of Logarithms) was published in 1619. It was later found out that the "Constructio" was written before the "Descriptio".

It should be noted that Napier did not try to obtain the logarithms of natural numbers. Instead, he was trying to obtain the logarithms of sines of angles. Note that Sine was not defined as the ratio as we know it today. It was defined as the length of that semi-chord of a circle of given radius which subtends the angle at the center. Hence we have the relation crd \theta = 2sin \frac {\theta}{2}. Napier took the radius to be 10^7 units. Therefore, Napier was actually looking for the logarithms of the numbers between 0 and 10^7, not for equidistant numbers, but for the numbers corresponding to equidistant angles. It also should be observed that the logarithms in Napier's table are not what we know under the name of natural logarithms. Therefore, to

John Napier's Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Constructio and a Step-by-Step Explanation

Henry Briggs and the Logarithms to the Base 10

Logarithms to the Base e

will talk about this if time allows.


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